Jiri is 16 years old and hungry. He's skinny as a twig, this Slovakian lad, but it's not food that he craves. Rather, he lusts after something bigger: great bleeding chunks of success.
Born in the year of his country's independence from Soviet domination, Jiri never knew what it was like to live with the Ivans on his neck. But his parents told him about the misery they endured during a half-century of totalitarian rule, and since earliest childhood he experienced for himself the economic insanity that results when a small nation like Slovakia attempts to fast-forward into the modern world.
By Western standards, Jiri is poor. He owns virtually nothing -- no Game Boy, no iPod, not even a soccer ball to call his own. His clothes look as if they were purchased decades before from People's Ill-Fitting Apparel Factory #3. But Jiri has something far more valuable than gadgets or finery. He has a plan.
I met him on a train to Bratislava, at the end of his summer holiday. The next morning he would rise at 6:00, arrive at school by 7:00, and begin a typical day: classes in the Slovak language, English, German, history, geography, two levels of mathematics, two of science, and a couple other subjects I couldn't quite catch.
Jiri's free time is spent almost entirely in study. His intention is to graduate from high school with honors, attend a well-regarded university, and pursue both an MBA and a law degree at the same time. Then -- well, then he will really get busy.
But as NATO and the European Union have expanded over the past decade, the center of gravity on the continent has begun to shift. Today, all the hungry young go-getters like Jiri -- be they in the Slovak or Czech republics, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, or even Bulgaria -- are making plans of their own. They want what their cousins in the West have always had, and they are willing to work like dogs to get it.
Whatever your opinion of Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense was onto something back in 2003 when he made the distinction between "old Europe" and "new Europe." A new generation is indeed coming of age in the East, and its members are intent on outpacing the Germans, the French, and anyone else who gets in their way.
So laugh if you must at poor little Jiri. But ten years from now, when he owns a Slovak company with which you'd like to do business, try not to whimper too badly when he negotiates you right into the ground.
His will be a success achieved the old-fashioned way: He will have earned it.